On the crest of an Atlantic wave
Summer is a bustling time for this seaside town in Clare which was hard hit by recession but has built a reputation as a mecca for surfers
It is almost 10pm on a July midweek night and the light is fading over Liscannor Bay. The waves are rolling to shore, but there's still lots of activity on this Blue Flag beach at Lahinch. Scores of surfers are still out, catching those waves and riding them home. A few start to pack up their things and make their way to cars and vans parked off the promenade. Others are, as yet, undeterred by the oncoming blackness as they paddle out to sea to ride one last wave.
Any of these hardy young men and women hoping to sate their appetites at The Seahorse chipper in the heart of the town will be in for a disappointment. Trade has been so busy that they've run out of fish and they have to close early.
But everything else is open and the small seaside town in Clare is positively hopping. It's high summer and Lahinch really comes into its own.
John McCarthy is a former Irish surf champion who opened a surf school here in 2002. A teetotal convert and born-again Christian, he is originally from Tramore in Waterford, but the waves there aren't nearly as special as here. And, he insists, they really are something along this stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way.
"This is a perfect place for people to learn to surf or for more experienced surfers to improve their techniques," he says. "And they come from all over to experience the waves here."
It's certainly busy on this particular Wednesday afternoon. McCarthy and his array of young instructors from all over the world have had a busy morning. The school holidays are a boon for business.
Much like the waves he rides, McCarthy says he has had his ups and downs here at Lahinch, and the recession hit hard. "People take a long hard look at what they spend their money on," he says. "But we've definitely come out of that now and I think Lahinch and the area around it is doing well, and much of that is thanks to surfing."
A surfing mecca
McCarthy's surf school is one of several water-sports providers that line the promenade and are helping to ensure that Lahinch is on the map of lovers of the Great Outdoors from all parts of Ireland - and overseas.
It's a part of Clare that's begun to enjoy a considerable reputation among serious surfing aficionados. Further up the coast, at the legendary Cliffs of Moher, there are huge waves known as 'Aileen's' or 'Aileen's Wave' - a bowdlerisation of the Irish name for the local headland, Aill na Searrach. It was McCarthy who coined the name.
"They're incredible," he says. "You feel very much part of nature when you ride them."
McCarthy was filmed braving them on a TV bank advert that ran some years ago. These towering walls of water are only tacked by the most gifted, seasoned surfers.
But Lahinch has also been on the itineraries of adventure-loving families for quite some time, too. Gearoid Howard used to ride Harley Davidson motorbikes, but now has a passion for triathlons. He and wife Finola, along with their three children, are regular visitors to Lahinch.
"It's a brilliant place," he says. "The kids love it. There are so many water-sports activities for them to do and the town is compact and the people are friendly. The fact that the beach is close to the town is very appealing."
It is remarkable just how close the beach is to the main street. You could walk from one of the most popular pubs, Kenny's, and be on the sand in under two minutes.
The golf course also backs up to the town and its clubhouse is also just a few minutes' walk from the heart of Lahinch. Members are justly proud: the main course (as opposed to the adjoining Castle Course) is considered one of the finest links courses in the country and last year it was named in a Top 100 list of the world's best by Golf Digest, the bible of the sport.
This year, Lahinch Golf Course celebrates its 125th year in existence. Retired priest Fr Enda Glynn was the co-author of its official history book. A passion for this windswept landscape of fairways and greens courses runs through his veins.
"I was born just over there," he says, pointing through the clubhouse window to a row of houses just beyond the second green. "It has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember."
A golfing legacy
Fr Glynn is adamant that the course, built by Alexander Shaw and Richard Plummer of Limerick Golf Club - helped change the fortunes of the town forever. "It was a very remote, out-of-the way place before the golf club," he says. "But from 1892 onwards, it attracted wealthy people to the town - as, back then, it was only the wealthy who played golf. And, that same year, the promenade was built, which helped it become the seaside resort we know today."
The prom was commissioned by Lady Aberdeen - the wife of the Viceroy to Ireland at the time, and her name would live on as the name of a long-established hotel. The Lahinch Golf and Leisure Hotel stands where the Aberdeen Arms used to be - just across the road from the Church of the Immaculate Conception.
Lahinch Golf Club traditionally attracts significant numbers of American and British golfers, but Fr Glynn points out that several gifted golfers from north Clare went on to be professionals. "John Burke was a Clareman and one of the country's greatest sportsmen, but people rarely talk about him today," he says. "It's like he's been airbrushed out of history. But between 1928 and 1949, he won 26 championships. He was an incredible golfer."
The priest believes Lahinch is enjoying a spell of good fortune right now, but it's a sentiment not shared by his cousin, Donogh O'Loghlin, the proprietor of Lahinch's long-established drapery business, Sue's. It's named after his mother who ran the store here and in nearby Ennistymon: the latter, now closed, was established by one of O'Loughlin's forebears in 1890.
"I don't think the town is doing as well as some might have you believe," he says. "It's great that there are a lot of surfers here, and they're good people, but I don't think they spend much money in the town."
He is also concerned about what he feels is a rise in anti-social activity at weekends. Lahinch has become something of a destination for stag and hen parties, and he says, it's changing the complexion of the place somewhat.
It's a view echoed by his next-door neighbour on Main Street, James Logan, a registered firearms dealer and craftsman. "There's no police station in Lahinch now," he says. "And we really need it. There can be a rough element every now and again." He removes his hat to reveal a mark on his forehead sustained in an attack on the promenade recently.
He's also suffered an attack on his property which, he proudly points out, has been in the family for 180 years. "I'd windows broken. That's the sort of thing we don't want to see."
On the Ennis side of town, it's impossible to miss the Sancta Maria Hotel. A gleaming white building, it was opened in 1954, and its formidable 90-year-old founder says it has remained much the same ever since.
"We like to run the hotel our way," Susan McInerney says. "We have a wine licence but have never had a bar. Other places might do it, but we won't and I think our customers like that we have our principles."
The hotel enjoys a lot of repeat custom - including those with their own children who first visited as children. But the game has changed, according to Susan's son, Thomas. "People used to come for two-week holidays, then it was down to one week. Now, it's more likely that they'll spend two or three days with you. It's sad in a way, but I suppose times have changed, and people want to see more when they're on holiday."
It's clear his mother enjoys the hard business of running a hotel as much as she ever did. Retirement isn't in her vocabulary. "It's something I love to do," she says. "And it's great to keep active. What else would I be doing?"
The formidable matriarch was 27 when she started the Sancta Maria with her husband Patrick - affectionately known as Pakie - and has seen extraordinary change in Lahinch during that time. And yet, its location ensures that some things remain the same. "It's great to see that so many people from all walks of life still come," she says. "And they walk along the promenade and play golf just like they always did."
Doria Orfali is close to the age Susan McInerney was when she first started her hotel. A month ago, the Ennis native - whose surname speaks of her Lebanese heritage - opened a café on Main Street. Dodi's - in deference to her nickname - offers something different in Lahinch. There are day-long brunches and single origin coffee.
She runs the café with her boyfriend, Peter Cush, who's from Limerick.
"We saw a void in the market," she says, "Lahinch is a vibrant place - there's an awful lot of young people coming here all the time, particularly those who want to surf. The café opened last month."So far, we're happy with how it's gone but we're learning fast," she says. "The town is busy now in summer, but it could be very different in winter."
The couple are adjusting to life by the sea and enjoying the experience. Peter surfs, but claims he's not very good. "He's being modest," his girlfriend says. "He's been surfing for eight years."
While it's undoubtedly true that Lahinch seems to be a busy place, even midweek, it does share something of that down-at-heel look common to many seaside towns.
Paintwork here and there is badly faded and there are several vacant units. One of them, in what looks like it was once a clothes shop, is especially forlorn: the bottom halves of two mannequins are the only objects that stand in the dusty window.
"Anybody who lives next to the Atlantic will tell you that you need to paint your house much more often than elsewhere," says one man, "from the east coast", who made Lahinch his home more than a decade ago. "It's a place I love living in but I don't think the rising tide has lifted all boats.
"I think some people come in and play a round of golf or have a morning surf and then move on. The town itself isn't the prettiest, but the countryside is perfect for those like me who got sick and tired of the rat race.
"And it's a great place to raise children - there's none of that crap about waiting lists for schools or having to keep up with the Joneses."
Despite its Atlantic-side location and the glorious expanse of beach, few objective people would say Lahinch is as pretty as Ennistymon, a five-minute drive away. An old market town, it boasts some fine buildings, a pleasing 19th-century streetscape and there's real beauty along the path of the Inagh River, which flows through the town.
But few people who speak to Review have any fears for Lahinch's future. Fr Enda Glynn talks of the golfers who come back time and again, bewitched by the difficult course, the gorgeous Atlantic views and the goats that traditionally graze here. "And they tell their friends," he says. "They say to them, 'You have to play the St Andrew's of Ireland'."
And, for John McCarthy, Lahinch is where he and his Cork wife, Rachel, and their two children will always call home. "I'm lucky to have made a business out of something I love," he says, "and I live in a place where I can surf seven days a week if I want to.
"But more than anything else, I've made some great friends here and we're always meeting people who are coming to Lahinch for the first time and falling in love with it. Those are the sort of things that really make life special. At the end of the day, everyone of us are looking for happiness. I've found it here."
Surf’s up: A year in the life of Lahinch
Lahinch — and the surfers who have made it their home — is the focus of a feature-length documentary from the award-winning Dublin film-maker Ross Whitaker.
Between Land and Sea offers a portrait of 12 months in the life of the seaside town and its relationship with the Atlantic Ocean. It opened to critical acclaim earlier this year, and having sold distribution rights to Australia, China and South Korea, the movie is set to get another Irish cinema release in the autumn.
“Surfing has really boosted the fortunes of Lahinch,” says Whitaker. “Over the past 15 or 20 years, the numbers taking up the sport have really gone up — and so many of them are drawn to Lahinch.”
The film focuses on six very different surfers, including John McCarthy. “He’s played a really big part in boosting the tourist numbers to the town,” Whitaker says. “You’ve got a lot of families coming every summer because there are so many lessons for the children.”
Whitaker, whose past work includes a touching documentary on the disabled campaigner Mark Pollock, believes the Lahinch surfing boom happened at an opportune time.
“I get the sense that the golf may not have been as busy as it was and, of course, really bad weather makes playing a links course very difficult. But surfing is largely a year-round activity and the ones who are really serious about it go out in winter when conditions can be at their best.”
Having spent part of every week in one year in the town, Whitaker has been seduced by the place. “You’re so much more aware of the seasons there than you’d be in a city,” he says, “and it’s easy to see why some want to take a different pace of life and move there. It’s a special place.”
- John Meagher
LAHINCH FACT BOX
Claim to fame: It's where to come for the giant Aileen's Waves, famous among surfers. And, in 1943, a US bomber crash landed on the beach - all 11 crew survived.
Famous sons and daughters: Golfers John Burke (1899-1974) and Patrick Joseph Skerritt (1926-2001) were born here.